Personalities and Protest Art
by Tanya Abraham
Artists like Salvador Dali, Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo explain to us how free expression and personal styles have created shifts in visual art that have changed it from numerous dimensions. So, to think of artists who have dared to be free - changing the very nature in which art had been thus portrayed, tells us much about the artists themselves. This extension of personalities into their work without set and specific boundaries, have shown to create opportunities for new explorations, leaving behind traditional styles. How personalities are closely linked to the kind of art they produce also explains the use of art to tell who they are, so also to defy, question and explain. Choosing three artists who have dared to step beyond the ordinary and move into spaces which are their own, creating art with personal signatures, throws us into the need to see the common thread between them which have brought forth art which protests. Salvador Dali (1904-1989) for example was a man of many eccentricities and this transcended to his art. Detailed, precise and intelligent, Dali’s work stood far from the norms of ordinary thinking, so much that he seemed to have deliberately indulged in practices which shocked audiences. He was clever in a way, using this attitude to lure them to him. Dali’s comment “My whole ambition in the pictorial domain is to materialise the images of my concrete irrationality with the most imperialist fury of precision,” explains the mind of a man and an artist who was fierce and fearless when it came to exhibiting his ideas related to art. So much that, to create practices which were far from the ordinary, Dali created in himself states of great pain and agitation by scaring himself using dead bodies of insects and animals to remove the existence of boundaries between imagination and what is real. He believed this state of mind, would instigate the mind to move into a highly creative state, by which his artistic ability would rise and he would bring forth ideas from a multi dimensional state. Surrealistic in his approach, he attempted at unlocking the unconscious through creativity. He used intelligent understanding to form the basis upon which he worked, questioning and recreating them by integrating his ideas into its details. For example, fascinated by Einstein’s theory of relativity that time bends with gravity, he extended the concept to watches to come forth with his work titled The Persistence of Memory (oil on canvas), where he painted melting metal watches, stating that these watches can melt and stretch, urging one to understand the same possibility in our physical world. It is clear that Dali’s work transcends beyond the ‘now’ and moves into a realm which is freeing and away from the physical understanding of things. The melting watches in the painting came as he noticed a Camembert cheese had melted and spread to the rims of the dish, whilst the odd figure in the centre of his work is a caricature of himself blanketed by a melting watch – Dali explores the idea of consciousness and its freedom to act that can be attained by overcoming earthly limitations. He expressed his aversion using the images of what he detested most – like in this work the back of an orange case has ants crawling about it (Dali hated ants), which again explicitly stated the inner feelings of the man that is painted using symbols of what he disliked. Dali never limited to the ideologies that were set stage before him, instead he moved from almost a sub-conscious point, where he described using elements that spoke of him. Not only in art, but Dali’s bizarre ideas are also seen in film making, where along with Luis Bunuel, the Surrealist Revolution was taken a step further with the graphic description of a woman’s eye being sliced open with a razor (L’Age d’ or, 1930). Of course, Dali and his partner found the film having been banned by many, but this did not stop him from exploring and exhibiting who he was. In fact, in a way, he always seemed to enjoy the reactions he got. So much that his work in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Spellbound, of designing a nightmare (dream) sequence is seen to have a close similarity to his paintings, which later paved the way to newer ways of depicting art.
But when we look at the works of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), we find that his works are different from Dali’s. Dali’s works are suave and idiosyncratic like him while van Gogh’s works are intense, troubled, and emotional – like the man himself. He used emotional intensity as the driving force to paint, merging it with clever usage of colour and composition. (Different as he was, van Gogh’s work may have been criticised more than liked by those of his time, but an avant-garde artist of his period, he drew and painted within his own periphery of things, which sometimes were situations of extreme loneliness and depression.) We see that van Gogh’s life itself seemed bizarre, as an artist who never won in love and spent countless days at brothels and among whores, even developing intimate relationships with some. Yet in all these dark days, he produced some of the most magnificent art works, but van Gogh’s creativity as one of the great artists of the world was recognized and appreciated much after his time. He allowed a new form of style to flourish, which came under the banner of ‘Post-Impressionism’ (where his name rests alongside artists like Gaugin, Cezanne, Seurat). He discovered a rather attractive and new way of depicting naturalism by applying thick layers of paint and using a sense of geometry along with much richer colours. He painted with the intention of bringing out the natural beauty of a picture – Like in his painting of a cafe set in the night, to which he said, “There you have it – a night painting without having used the colour black, only beautiful blue, violet and green.” So much that he ‘decorated’ his work and allowed the layers of paint to show, not smoothening them out. He then used his imagination to study light and create different light moods in his paintings.
In The Potato Eaters (1885), he expressed emotionally the lives of the peasants in the village where he lived, saying “What I have tried to do, that those people, eating their potatoes by lamplight, have dug the earth with the very hands they put into their bowls,” linking strongly to the harshness they experienced. His paintings, continued to be a self-depiction, like in A Pair of Shoes, in which it is said the weathered shoes are in truth a depiction of his worn out life. But this changed with impressionism, and he moved into a new slot of experimenting with a style he had learnt. Impressionism changed under van Gogh, to take his own style and form. Later when he started collecting Japanese wood blocks, he painted them, exalting their bold designs and decorative patterns. Of course, Van Gogh brought criticism to himself, but his painting style was strong and bold, and path breaking. As for his use of colour, Van Gogh used it freely. He took colours off a natural scene and made it forceful, often voicing himself in their use. However, his moods affected his paintings. From bright colours, it shifted to sombre colours and back again to bright. He continued painting self-portraits. His craziness coupled with bouts of depression extended freely in the way he chose to live his life too – when he painted a self portrait with a bandaged ear and pipe, a part of his ear which was actually cut off (and it is said, was handed over to a whore he had acquainted himself with). Towards the end of his life, he painted the countryside. He wrote, “I almost think that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words.” Van Gogh committed suicide at a time too young to die. But he left behind a use of colours and strokes that hold a sense of freedom, which paved way for Expressionism and a whole different way for art in the 20th century.
Years later Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907- 1954) shows us a similar change but in a daring and different manner. If Kahlo’s paintings stand out for what they are, it tells of them being a blatant portrayal of ‘who she is’. Using symbols and influenced by the culture and heritage of Mexico, so also indigenous folk art, Kahlo’s (surrealistic) paintings are bold, colourful and poignant. They speak of Kahlo’s intimate feelings and a tumultuous life, often a means by which she emptied her mind. Kahlo’s paintings are very expressive as they reflect her trials in life (a victim of polio at age six and a terrible accident later in life which left her confined to bed for a year) along with its joys and passions. Her feelings and emotions are seen time and again in the paintings, mostly self portraits. (These increased in depth and intensity as complexities surrounded her after her marriage to the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera – a marriage which was filled with passion, love, infidelities, Kahlo’s bisexual relationships, divorce and re-marriage.) Kahlo created about 200 works including paintings, drawings and sketches. Her works were her biography, like in her Two Fridas (1939, oil on canvas), which was painted at the time she and Diego were divorced, we see her pain. The blood dripping on the white skirt (one of her first portrait) and a miniature portrait of Diego clutched by the second Frida, so also the two hearts (one whole, when loved by Diego and the other ripped open from the loss of her lover]. So also her work titled Diego and I (painted at a time when Diego was having an affair with the actress Maria Felix) tells of a troubled Kahlo. In this work, we see a Kahlo whose hair is let down as if strangling her from pain, tears depict its intensity and Diego’s portrait painted on her forehead explain that he was always on her mind. In her work Self-Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States (1932), her discontentment and homesickness from moving away from Mexico is seen where she portrays the United States as a land of machines while Mexico to her represented love, hope and life. Symbols are vivid in her work – she wears long gloves as if ready for a party while the cigarette in her hand depicts rebellion. Kahlo’s paintings were created along her journey of life, each work becoming part of her biography: “The only thing I know is that I paint because I need to, and I paint always what passes through my head, without any consideration.”
Dali, Van Gogh and Kahlo are, in their own rights, artists who have rebelled, demanded and challenged. They have created an indelible mark not only in art, but in history itself.